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18 January 2011

On your Marx, Eric

Hobsbawm's latest book provokes strong criticism from the New Statesman's John Gray.

By Lucian Robinson

In this week’s magazine, the philosopher and the New Statesman‘s lead reviewer John Gray gives a caustic critique of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s latest book, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Gray argues:

If The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987) are landmark works of history, one reason for this is the deep understanding they show of the interactions of ideas with power. Hobsbawm’s great weakness is that he chose not to apply the same historical understanding to the period between 1914 and 1991 – the era he has called “the short 20th century”, in which communism came to power in many parts of the world and then disappeared, leaving only a trail of ruins. His writings on this period are banal in the extreme. They are also highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism, a refusal to engage which led the late Tony Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm had “provinicalised himself.” It is a damning judgement, but one that the present volume vindicates.

In this week’s Books Interview, the NS culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, interviews Hobsbawm himself. On looking at the global financial crisis in a Marxist context, Hobsbawm states:

I think it is widely regarded as a vindication of Marx’s work… Very few people predicted a financial crisis. But when the trouble began to be evident, some people on the business side began to rediscover Marx — paradoxically, well before the left did.

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On the effect that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on Marx’s reputation, Hobsbawm argues:

Marx… was saved by the collapse of the Soviet Union — but not necessarily Marxism, because the Soviet Union was a Marxist state only of a kind.

In his review, Gray bluntly takes issue with this, pointing out that:

The Soviet regime, which was the most important embodiment of Marx’s revolutionary project in the 20th century, has collapsed… there is no longer any advanced country that has a mass party which can claim to be inspired by Marx’s thinking.

In another interview with Hobsbawm from last weekend’s Observer, the historian confesses that he feels ill at ease with modern European politics: “Ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.” He also criticises the current coalition government in Britain as being “much more radically right-wing… than it looked at first sight.”

Read John Gray’s full review of Eric Hobsbawm’s book and Jonathan Derbyshire’s interview with Hobsbawm in this week’s New Statesman